This article appeared in the Weekend Australian Review Section January 6-7 1996 p1-2
A couple of hours after we meet, Galarrwuy Yunupingu climbs into his Landcruiser and drives up the red-dirt road to his house on the point at Drimmie Head in north-east Arnhem Land. The house on stilts, seems to occupy its own piece of paradise, in the whisper of a breeze that springs from Melville Bay.
Parking amid the palms and billy goat plums, Yunupingu instead focuses on the truck with a crane that has just hoisted a refrigerator as big as the Ritz on to the first-floor veranda. He has selected that model because of the icemaker in the freezer door, he confides, going into the house to make sure the new fridge is in the right place and the old one’s been moved, as he’s instructed his workers.
That done, he gets into the vehicle again for the tour of his principality. In this part of the world he is the all-powerful leader of a branch of his Gumatj clan: as the boss of the Gumatj Association he controls the distribution of close to $2 million a year in royalty payments from the Federal Government, as he is entitled to do under Aboriginal tradition and the land rights legislation.
Nevertheless, it makes him a sort of lord of the manor. A kilometre or two away, up the road, past his office, is the small community of Gunyangarra, or Ski Beach, as most call it. The 100 or so inhabitants depend on his largesse and in return may be expected to do as he wants. His influence extends far beyond this community, however.
A seasoned political powerbroker, he is all but a fixture as the chairman of the Northern Lands Council – the organisation sometimes seen as the real opposition to the Government of the Northern Territory. NLC chairman for no less than 16 years, almost as long as the Country Liberal Party has been in office. Yunupingu, 47, continues to create friction, long after the tumultuous land rights struggles of the 1980s. Nowadays he is inclined to suggest that his time as leader has come and gone, even as he direrts himself with demonstrations of his power. In truth his authority comes not only from his ceremonial roles but his ability to negotiate in both white and black worlds.
His secretary calls him “the boss”. Others call him “the Black Prince”. But ouside the Northern Territory by now he may be better known as the older brother of the musician Mandawuy Yunupingu, lead singer of Yothu Yindi.
The band is soon to release a new album, its first in three years. Its members have continued to tour overseas, inspiring responses that almost seem to suggest that Yothu Yindi has managed to package itself as the distilled essence of the real Australia. But even before he was a rock star, Mandawuy, a former principal of the school at Yirrkala, was a public figure, invited to government functions and openings as the incarnation of Aboriginal Australia.
In 1993, he was named Australian of the Year, as Galarrwuy had been 14 years earlier.
The two work together on occasion, whether on CD or the ceremonies that remain a constant feature in the lives of the Yolngu – the Aborigines of the north-eastern Arnhem Land. But in making their mark, in their very different ways, they almost seem to belong to different periods.
As often on the road as he is at home, Mandanwuy Yunupingu turns up at the NSW Art Gallery in November to launch a book by Jennifer Isaacs. The book is the life story of Yolngu artist and leader Wandjuk Marika, an uncle of his who died eight years ago.
Yunupingu, a seemingly modest, moonfaced man in his middle 30s dressed in black jeans, a black shirt, a black blazer, and a feather garland on his head, hands back until it is time for him to speak. Though he is the star of the occasion, at least as far as the television crews are concerned, he appears to be entirely absorbed in the ceremony rather than any aspect of his own celebrity.
“He’s a bit dreamy, Mandawuy,” says Ian James, his publisher at Mushroom Records. “He comes into my world and, in a way, wanders through the music world not being a part of it. He does have a feeling of being above it. It’s a bit like Mandela, he has the same sort of assurance. There’s something almost statesmanlike about his calm.”
In contrast, Galarrwuy Yunupingu has a lazily commanding presence that comes alive as he works the crowd that has gathered at Ski Beach for the distribution of the mining royalties.
The rust-red earth in these parts is bauxite, mined and processed into alumina by Nabalco on the land where the Gumatj once foraged for yams and wild honey.
The huge Nabalco processing plant can be seen by the community at Ski Beach, across the glass-still water of Melville Bay. Nabalco doesn’t pay the royalties, however.
For the ceremony that marks the end of the official mourning period, other members of the family have come from Yirrkala, in Arnhem Land. The occasion is already proving to be a bit more spontaneous than the gallery may have bargained for; as its director, Edmund Capon, stands observing the proceedings, looking more than usually bemused, shivering youths in loincloths, with their faces daubed with white clay and orange garlands on their heads, stand whispering together in the Yolngu language or go off in search of the loos, skittering barefooted over the gallery’s cold floor.
While most of the four or five dozen people at the meeting are from the local community, or from Yirrkala, about 25km away, a few men arrive as envoys of the clans that get a bit of the money Galarrwuy distributes to cement his political alliances.
Straddling a chair parked under a tamarind tree, with a two-way radio in hand, Yunupingu, a big, handsome man going to fat, talks in the soft-sounding Yolngu language, but spikes it with words like “businessman”, “ceremony” and “day-to-day spending” as well as the word for money, “rupiah”, a legacy of the Macassar traders from Indonesia who first had contact with the Aborigines hundreds of years ago. The Yolngu may have had no word for money back then, but little else is on the agenda today.
Only a fraction of the royalty payment – $1.5 million to $2 million a year – is handed out at the quarterly meetings. Instead Yunupingu holds most of the money back for sudden demands and ceremonial purposes. Now he tells people the can’t keep coming to ask him for money when they feel like it.
“If you’re sitting up late at night with him,” says one friend, political consultant Jamie Gallagher, “someone may knock on the door, because they need $500 to get a sick person on a flight to Darwin. By the same token, people have to come and ask for things.
“If you’re part of the family, you never have to worry – he’ll provide for you. But you have to do what he says. If Galarrwuy is sitting at home and the power goes, he yells out and someone has to go and fix the generator.”
He is an autocrat, famed for his arrogance, Public meetings demand a show of consensus, nonetheless, and before anyone else has a say, he talks and talks, repeating phrases, like a preacher, to wring a response from the crowd. The task is made easier closest to him, on bits of material spread on the sand under the banyan tree, include several of his own sisters.
Strong women in colourful print sundresses, they call out “yo, yo”, the Yolngu for “yes”, it turns out (as well as the oral equivalent of a high five in Hollywood movies). The confusion adds to the somewhat surreal atmosphere of this occasion, even before one man has an epileptic fit and another, who is drunk, decides to brain an acquaintance with a tree branch. His mother talks him out of it. He sits down and within five minutes is fast asleep.
Everything else goes on as before. A dozen or so children of primary school age are, on a school day, playing in the shallows or practising their spearing.
One spindly little boy creeps along a limb of the banyan tree, after a sulphur crested cockatoo, which suddenly takes off, almost at the moment a helicopter is to be heard. The chopper, bringing a family of four from a Gumatj out-station, lands on the sand, a couple of hundred metres from where Yunupingu sits, still talking about the need to economise.
Chartered for $1400 an hour, the helicopter will land at Ski Beach several more times that day. The fourth time, it comes in empty, apparently to fly the boss to the out-station where he had hoped to spend the weekend, but it’s late. He doesn’t go, and the helicopter leaves again, without a passenger. Next month or the month after they’ll have a helicopter of their own, he says.
He has, however, completed the main business of the day, passing a batch of the envelopes his secretary has given him to his older brother, Joe, his ally and equal. In his turn, Joe hands out 15 or so envelopes. It looks as if most contain several hundred dollars, rather than the thousands the division of a little less than $500,000 might lead one to expect.
The process points to something that can be quite a problem for bureaucrats trying to regulate the use of public money – kinship defines who gets what in traditional Aboriginal society. One mob gets the good houses. The other mob gets the tin sheds.
Late 20th-century capitalism doesn’t spread the dollars around evenly either. Galarrwuy may be well off, says associate Harvey Creswell, the white manager of the Northern Land Council office at Gove, “but a lot of the balanda [the whites] on executive salaries at Nabalco would be as wealthy. He’s got a nice car and a boat. They have nice cars and boats.”
So it would seem. Just past the bauxite processing plant, a kilometre before the outskirts of the Yolngu community, the red dirt road runs past a yacht club, a sight that looms up like a mirage. Here and there are sails flecked with the red dust churned up by the steady stream of Toyota Landcruisers. The whites drive them. The blacks drive them.
That’s right, says the affable Toyota dealer in Gove, 12km away, business is booming. It was even reported on TV. On 60 minutes not long ago, he tells me, they claimed Gove had more Toyotas per capita than any town in Australia. Something of the same aura of plenty radiates from the local pharmacy. One section of the shop is devoted to imported leather handbags and French perfumes.
There isn’t much else for the contract workers at Nabalco to spend it on during a three-month stint in the tropics. Gove has a members-only swimming pool, a pub with topless barmaids, a club with tennis courts and an air-conditioned restaurant, and a couple of fast food joints, where one doesn’t wait long to see the everyday dramatics of the whites unable to adapt themselves to sharing the place with the blacks.
They stomp outside, with the same aggravated expression theu pull down over their faces when the Yolngu come to town on pension day, and groups of spindle-shanked black women sit down in the walkways of the little shopping mall.
The Yolngu had to adapt to the presence of the whites. First there were the Methodists, who built a mission at Yirrkala, in the 1930s. Then the army came and stayed for the duration of the war. No sooner had an airman called Gove gone down with his plane than they named the peninsula after him. It was as if there had been nothing there. In fact, the Yolngu connections to ceremonial life and the land are stronger here than in many parts of Aboriginal Australia.
In 1963, in their first attempt to prevent mining on their land, the senior men from Yirrkala, among them the Yunupingu’s father, Munggurawuy, a renowned clan leader, presented the federal government with the Bark Petition, a land claim painted on bark.
Six years later, in the Blackburn case, they became the first Aborigines to go to court to fight for land rights mounting a legal challenge to try to stop Nabalco mining on leases granted by the government. They lost. But the case spurred the land rights movement that led to the Land Rights Act (1976).
“That was the biggest change in 200 years, and Gove was an important part in it,” says Galarrwuy Yunupingu, who also played a big part, going to court to interpret for his father and other clan leaders. “It was like entering the unknown.”
But he had already made an impression on Dr H.C. “Nugget” Coombs, then chairman of the Australian Council of Aboriginal Affairs. “Even when he was so young, Nugget said he’d be a great leader because he straddled both worlds.” Says Jennifer Isaacs, Coombs’s assistant then.
In those days, Isaacs recalls, “Galarrwuy was an incredibly good-looking man. He used to MC touring traditional dance companies and was an outrageous dresser. He’d wear bright red satiny shirts, and have his hair slicked back. With those big, dark eyes, every white teacher swooned over him.”
It seems people made a fuss of him from the first. Though his father, Munggurawuy, had 11 wives and “roughly” 24 children, family legend has it that Galarrwuy was singled out at once.
“When he was a baby I heard our father say he would be a leader,” his sister Gulumbu tells me. “He carried me on his shoulders,” Galarrwuy says. “Half a dozen of his children would be walking and he’d carry me.”
Born about a decade later to the same mother (and still a kid when Nabalco got its mining leases), Mandawuy Yunupingu instead recalls that he was one of about 12 people, in the smaller of the two houses at Yirrkala where their father lived. All the mothers would look after the children, he says, but he like following his own mother when she went out to look for yams, out where they later built the airport.
His brother passed on the secret-sacred knowledge of Yolngu life. “He used to hang around, give me heaps in terms of what I had to do. I saw him taking the role my father would, with the singing and dancing.”
But Galarrwuy was also the one advancing into the world, as his little brother watched. “We watched him go to school — to Bible college in Brisbane. It was a big buzz for Yirrkala — he was the first.” Generous-spirited Mandawuy tells me over the phone late last month when we catch up at last. He is in Darwin working on Yothu Yindi’s new CD.
The next time we talk he recalls something of the darker side of his youth. “I was afraid of white people, afraid to look better than them.” He had a good white friend, though, the local minister’s son, which meant he picked up some English at the age of six or seven. Later the teachers gave him books, and his English improved as he read and reread The House that Jack Built.
The more subtle kinds of adaptation came later, of course. “You’ve got to adjust how you present yourself, like being able to operate in a white man’s world without losing your identity.” he says. Before he left the Yirrkala school, he worked with Helen Verran, an academic from Melbourne University, to create a method of teaching maths that, in Verran’s words, “takes in white traditions in Aboriginal ways”.
But where the one brother looks forward, the other almost seems to look back, nostalgic about a community in which he’s the kingpin.
In his father’s day, Galarrwuy tells me, “old people spoke quiet and straight and if you were younger you were vulnerable. All the privileges and everything else was cut off, if you missed one order.” He is convinced things were better then.
“There was more discipline. We knew who the bosses were. Today is too many referees. You go from ‘ere is a policeman pushing you around. You go from there. ATSIC (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) is pushing you around. This is where Aboriginal people are frustrated — too many laws, too many rules,” he says, adopting the contentious position that the laws that apply to whites shouldn’t apply to Aborigines.
In 1993, an investigation into the NLC by the federal auditor-general uncovered budget over-runs and improper use of mining royalties. The 82-page report, tabled in the Senate, revealed that large cash advances had been provided to chairman Galarrwuy Yunupingu — some of them used to settle his personal credit card expenses — and repaid only belatedly.
In its response, the NLC said the auditor-general’s report had paid “much attention to advances to Mr Yunupingu”, but had ignored the extraordinary demands on him, particularly in relation to his cultural obligations.
For its part, the Northern Territory government is so keen to get rid of him that its office of Aboriginal development gives up to $50,000 to groups trying to set up breakaway land councils. At times, though, he gives those trying to white-ant him every assistance.
And enemy of his, a European who tangled with him and lost, claims Galarrwuy has white gardeners, Filipino servants and never carries his own bags. Whether or not these are myths, they're difficult to disentangle from the confronting reality of a well born Australian aborigine who doesn't merely fail to kowtow, but may refuse to be agreeable.
"My behaviour, my attitude, if you don't like it, you don't have to wear it," he asserts. In reality he savours saying, or pretending to say, what he thinks, something few Aborigines are inclined to do. Galarrwuy, in contrast, seems to delight in the oratorical equivalent of churning up the dirt a bit. "There's too many outside immigrants," he tells me, five minutes after I let him know I was born in Europe.
"People who are Aboriginal and who are Australian-born have the main rights. Those cultures should be dominant, instead of Australia being multicultural. It's an insult to say multicultural. You're trying to hide behind other cultural groups. This is Australia – it should have a culture of its own. Why do we have to hide it among the Chinamen, the Arabs, the Jews. What's wrong with the rest of us?"
He's a politician, playing to his constituency, and thus he contends that it isn't just foreigners he objects to, but foreign culture. "Whitefellas, too. They ought to get out of that American rubbish and be what they really are.
"It's a failure of imagination to see what Australia's gonna be." Within an hour, as it happens, we have left his office to go back to the house at Drimmie Head. Like the well-to-do whites in Gove, he has all the latest gadgets, from the new icemaker to the big bathroom's spa bath. The big TV set, which covers half the wall, is tuned to Imparja, the Aboriginal station in the territory. Despite the remarks about foreign rubbish he gets up to look closer at the tabloid TV segment from Fox called Alien Autopsy – Fact or Fiction.
It is hard to escape the sense that he revels in the contrasts of his behaviour. Insisting on the importance of tradition, he says, "We catch our own food, we live on fresh food. Kangaroos. Birds. Wild stuff. We might buy from Woolies – we leave that one for lazy days when we know there's no food around. You don't have to live on baked beans and Weetbix. You can eat all that fresh stuff.
That's what all Aboriginal people should be eating." Not today, however, I drive into town to pick up something to eat and, as requested, buy him chicken and chips.
But in the past week, it seems, they've eaten a wild goose. It's feathers are still strewn downstairs, and the seaward side of the house, around the small fountain and the tropical shrubs in rockery.
There was a time they caught geese in the billabong, now and an oily-looking swamp on the edge of Gove that has a sign saying that children from the primary school are working on its reclamation. The irony is unavoidable.
The place was pristine before the mine was opened. "The billabong used to be a camping place and a hunting place. We grew up in that billabong. The last time I swam in it was when I was 13," Yunupingu says. "We used to eat the lilies and get the waterfowl. Now they're pumping all sorts of shit into it."
In the mornings, nowadays, one sees the thin, silent figures of the Aborigines who sleep there after they get plastered and fail to make it back to Ski Beach or Yirrkala. And yet these vanishing figures have to be measured against that hidden part of Aboriginal life we give money and pay lip service to, but can't really apprehend.
It is this largely unseen world from which Galarrwuy Yunupingu derives much of his authority. He is determined to leave it intact for his children. Though he went to Bible college in his youth, Galarrwuy brushes away the very idea that they might go to university. "Why do you have to go to university? I mean, you know enough," he says.
"You're supposed to sit down and make babies and start a family.
"Why would you go anywhere near a university? It's not our cultural thing. What are you going to do when you come back? The old people say the white man's ideas come in and destroy everything and they're right."
In contrast, Mandawuy, one of the first of the Northern Territory's tribal Aborigines to go to university, hopes his six daughters will follow suit. "This is the time and the era," he says. They already do well at school and, as he says, "speak just like the English". He knows what he wants for them. "The best of both worlds, really."